Following the murder of George Floyd, I went to one of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in London’s Hyde Park. At the edge of those assembled, I heard generations of unheeded anger and pain, rumbling across the distance enforced by lockdown. The megaphone calls seemed to come from both the here and now of the crowd, and some unreachable elsewhere. Even as I strained to listen, I could only discern the general sentiment — which I had no doubt was just — but the detail escaped into the drizzle. I sat on the grass, among masked faces and voices raised, whenever the wave of a far cry reached us. The protestors duly chanted our replies, until the current changed course. An hour or so felt much the same, until, like lightning puncturing a cloud, a young woman appeared striding between us. Her hunched shoulders drove her forward on a lonely, staggering orbit, and she shouted a question with what was left of her voice:
What happens next?
I had never heard a question so desperate and determined, so vast in its simplicity. The people around me joined her, and those three words became a chant for thirty seconds or so. What happens next? The surge in volume seemed to strip away all its provocation. She doesn’t need an echo, I remember thinking. She needs answers. Action.
The sign I had taken, scrawled on the back of an envelope now clipped to my rucksack, said UK SLAVERY REPARATIONS NOW. Two years earlier, a friend had told me how, soon after the UK abolished slavery, the equivalent of £17 billion in today’s money was paid to middle and upper class slave-owners. No longer able to profit from forced labour, these already-wealthy citizens were compensated for the loss of their ‘property.’ People who had been enslaved were given nothing. I was appalled, as I should be. Ashamed, as I should be, that I had learnt nothing of this in seventeen years of British education. I made space for the fact in my imagination, and searched for my ancestors’ names in the Legacies of British Slave-ownership database. I found no family links to the slave trade; nothing to incriminate me directly. Though, by this point, I was vocal about racism, and confronted it when it crossed my path, I had discovered something altogether more insidious than skeletons: an illusion of total innocence.
Nonetheless, in the swell of activism that now seized the public consciousness — if not its conscience — it was the idea of reparations to which I returned. I had long felt that without redistribution of wealth and resources, nothing that needed to change could change. With descendants of enslaved people having scarcely received even an apology, I was certain it would be impossible to address systemic racism without formal acknowledgement of the UK’s leading role in the slave trade, and extensive reparations being made for the damage done. I had read and thought about white allyship, and concluded that my most worthwhile contribution would be advancing the argument for reparations. So I came to Hyde Park, with my slogan and self-belief.
In the days following the protest, the woman’s question rang in my ears. The encounter had lasted less than a minute, and my individual presence had surely meant nothing to her, but she walked my memory, tired and hoarse. I did not face the daily oppression I was sure she had to bear. I did not worry my brother or father might be needlessly tasered by police. My ethnicity was not described as undesirable on dating apps. I didn’t carry a fear of disproportionate mortality rates, due to the colour of my skin, in the pandemic unfolding around us. Surely, then, I should have more energy to offer the fight than her. So why did she have to shout until her voice drained away?
Answers. Action. I had to start somewhere. Quickly, I turned my placard into the beginnings of what I envisaged would become a movement. I was aware that people had been advocating for slavery reparations for centuries, and that almost all of them were black. I therefore wrote to everyone white I knew and asked them to follow a campaign I was setting up, which promised to encourage white allies to give to black-led organisations in the name of reparation. I claimed I would, as momentum increased, put pressure on Government and private institutions to take their part in righting historical wrongs. It was a grand vision, fuelled by a genuine recognition of injustice, but it faded fairly quickly. In the back of my mind, I knew there was a far more personal and compelling message I could send, if I took a step back and looked at slavery in the context of empire. My family may have had clean hands when it came to slavery, but the British Empire had left its mark. I had to admit with some discomfort, however, that I barely knew how.
I’d always known my mum spent some of the early years of her life in Malaya, but I was so ill-informed I didn’t even know the difference between Malaya and Malaysia, the present-day name of the country in Southeast Asia. I did know my mum’s family was there because her father was sent for work, and that they had lived in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. The little I understood of it was mostly pieced together from photos of Grandad’s amateur dramatic society, or stories about bits of furniture in his house. The hazy images in faded albums looked nothing like my childhood, and the camphor wood chest like nothing in the little cottage where I grew up. I had a vague sense that my grandparents employed Malayan staff to cook and care for my mum and her brothers, but the idea of having housekeepers was so far from my reality that I never felt such a lifestyle had anything to do with me. Stories of this time rarely reached my ears, and I did nothing to seek them out.
After secondary school, I received a partial scholarship to study at a private international sixth form in South Wales, attended by students from over eighty countries. There, suddenly surrounded by peers who spoke three languages or had parents from different continents, I sometimes casually mentioned my mum’s brief time in Asia. It seemed to me a benign use of a negligible fact to bolster my ego, and to reassure myself I was not just a British monoglot with an Irish name. Despite this, I did nothing to educate myself on the history or culture of Malaysia, and I made no effort to create a relationship with any of the handful of Malaysian students. By the time I left, my enduring friendships were overwhelmingly with white people. It only occurred to me recently that the remainder of my school fees were paid with money inherited from one of my grandfather’s friends, who also lived as a colonist in Malaya. If she hadn’t left money to my mum, I could never have gone to the school.
At university, my background seemed less interesting to me than ever. I was extremely turned off by all the undergraduates who, in the first week, demanded to know where you had obtained your A Levels, and promptly lost interest if it wasn’t a school they recognised. I made friends with a very small group of others, and beyond that circle relied on being intimidating rather than relatable. I was considered to be ‘cool’ (not a remarkable achievement at Cambridge), and chose my acquaintances carefully. Throughout my adolescence, I had thrown myself into activism, for example trying to break into RAF bases during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Now, however, I obscured much of my identity in Cambridge’s glare of greater wealth and privilege. When fellow students occupied the law faculty and demanded the university divest from the arms trade — a purpose I wouldn’t hesitate to call justified now — I only joined them for half an hour, and rolled my eyes at their improbable vision of utopia. In this insular, competitive world, my grandfather’s few years overseas would make no impression on the heirs of entitlement who were now my contemporaries. I was privately in awe of, and threatened by, their brazen confidence, even when some of them planned an end-of-year ‘May ball’ on the theme of ‘the British empire.’ The privilege which took me to an institution with fingers in all the wrong pies, and the further privilege I collected while there, are just a fraction of what I now see I must examine and understand.
A decade of building discomfort around my university education followed. I rediscovered my political awareness, and tried to integrate activism in my professional life. Still, as far as my family history was concerned, I did nothing. After my knee-jerk response to the Black Lives Matter demonstration, I finally asked the question. I asked my mother to tell me what she knew about my grandad (now deceased) and his work in Malaya. Connected through screens, I suggested to my parents and three brothers that we needed to confront our ties to colonialism head-on, and to learn this history and challenge what it means to us. My mum made no attempt to deny her father was a colonist, but it turned she didn’t know very much herself. She recommended a novel by a Malaysian author, and referred me to an uncle who understood the ‘geo-political’ situation better than she did. However, she knew enough to say that Grandad was employed by the British Government at a radio station, in Kuala Lumpur. He also helped to set up the Malayan Arts Theatre Group, which staged English plays by the likes of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. Though this kind of cultural imperialism might seem innocuous — compared, say, to the UK’s concentration camps in 1950s Kenya — between us we didn’t possess the knowledge to make that call. My grandmother also worked while they were there, at a jeweller and a fertiliser company. The family was finally summoned home, Mum said, when communist fighters began waging a guerrilla war on colonists during the Malayan Emergency. Soon after, having charted a period of instability none of my relatives can claim to properly comprehend, Malaysia became an independent country.
Only two generations separate me from these events. Such little distance is unsettling, but I know the fact I can trace my own history is a privilege in itself. How many descendants of colonised people have stories which lead only to an abyss of empire’s making? My unease at least offers an opportunity: to unpick exactly how my ancestors were complicit in colonialism, and to try to find a way for my family to make amends. As much as coming to terms with our own reality, it will mean reaching out and listening to descendants of colonised Malaysians. It will be complex and challenging to fully understand our past and its impact on the present, and harder still to quantify and enact reparation. Wherever we end up cannot be a simple transaction, but a process of embedding fundamental change at every level of our lives.
Embarking on this process does not absolve me from other action against racism. Addressing my family’s ties to the British Empire in Malaya is not a universal solution to the privilege I am afforded by my white skin. It does not mean turning my back on the Black Lives Matter movement. It does not mean I will at some point be able to claim innocence again. It does not mean forgetting that I love my family. But here is a path into the cruel and overwhelming enormity of empire, and a path that is mine because I have a moral obligation to walk it. I can unearth the evidence, and free myself from the meaningless abstractions which apologists and oppressors use to absolve themselves — ‘history is history’ — ‘that’s just the way things were back then.’ Not all families will have the same story, but there are millions with similar work to do. In doing my own, and sharing the process as I go, I can prove it is possible. I see this as a contribution more honest and credible than a campaign aimed towards the great out-there of Government and industry.
Taking up the call to this work is long overdue. We can choose to keep ignoring it, or embrace and accept it.
Here is a way to begin.
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